From brightening to anti-aging to hydrating, there are countless potential benefits of facial serums. These little bottles are powerhouses of concentrated skincare ingredients, and they may already be an important part of your morning or nighttime routine—or both!
But as with many skincare products, choosing the right one for your skin is only half of the process. To maximize your facial serum’s potential, it’s important to know how to apply it correctly. Here, Curology’s licensed dermatology providers break down the most beneficial time in your skincare routine to use these products, and how to apply them to help you squeeze the most out of your serum.
Generally speaking, facial serums are skincare products that contain concentrated active ingredients meant to target specific skin concerns. They’re typically lightweight formulas. With so many different types out there, it’s likely you’ll be able to find one that addresses your needs.
There are serums that are meant for morning use, nighttime use, or both—depending on the bottle’s specific ingredients and directions. Because they’re typically concentrated, a little product can go a long way!
Facial serums may be more expensive than other types of skincare products. But because they’re potent formulas and you’ll typically only use a small amount each time you apply them, they may last for a long time.
Every facial serum is different, and they’re typically meant to target different skin concerns. Depending on the specific ingredients in your bottle, a facial serum may help your skin by improving:¹
The appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
Facial discoloration (dark spots)
The appearance of pores
Some facial serums may also help increase skin brightness and hydration while reducing the appearance of wrinkles and helping to protect against photoaging from the sun.² To maximize the effects of a facial serum, pair it with a broad-spectrum Sunscreen, with SPF 30 or higher, which reflects the sun’s rays.
Different kinds of serums can help you narrow down the concerns they address. For example, hydrating options can help increase skin softness while reducing dryness.³ If you’re looking for even more hydration in your routine, combine one of these types of serums with Curology’s Moisturizer, which is designed for all skin types.
The short answer is, it depends! Certain serums are best applied in the AM, while others are best applied in the PM. Some serums may be used in both your morning and evening routine! However, there’s generally an optimal place in your skincare routine for applying these products. Check the instructions on your bottle to find out when to apply them, or consult a professional, like one of the licensed dermatology providers at Curology. In the meantime, here are some guidelines to get you started.
For example, when used with sunscreen, vitamins C and E can provide additional protection against UVB damage from the sun’s rays, and vitamin C can help guard your skin against UVA rays.⁴ To reap the full benefits, you may want to apply facial serums with these ingredients in the morning.
Just as some ingredients in facial serums thrive in the sunlight, others may not live up to their full potential during the day. Retinol, a vitamin A derivative that helps treat signs of aging and other skin concerns, can easily break down when exposed to light and air—so it should be used in your nighttime routine.⁵
It’s important to apply your serum on clean skin—otherwise, excess dirt and oil may block all those valuable ingredients from penetrating the outer layer of your skin. Try a face wash like Curology’s Gentle Cleanser, which uses glycerin and oat extract to wash away dirt and oil without clogging pores or stripping your skin.
If a toner is part of your skincare routine, you may want to consider using it before your serum. Certain toners can also remove excess oil from your skin, so they may help cleanse your face and allow your serum to fully absorb.⁶
Because some types of moisturizers—like occlusives—create a barrier over the skin, they may prevent your serum from fully absorbing into your face. Even a lightweight moisturizer should typically be applied as a top layer after your serum.
Sunscreen should generally be the final step in your skincare routine—meaning you’ll want to apply your serum first!
Some serums are designed just for the area around your eyes—and depending on the ingredients and the formula, these products can help address concerns like dark circles, wrinkles, and puffiness. Apply eye serum during the same step as your regular serum: after washing your face and applying toner (if you’re using toner), but before using moisturizer and sunscreen.
Now that you have an idea about when to apply your facial serum, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your product.
Facial serums can be powerhouse products, but that doesn’t mean you should rely on them to do all the work. As we’ve covered, it’s important to wash your face before applying serums to clear off excess dirt and oil. And not all serums are hydrating, so make sure to consistently use a moisturizer as well.
If you are using a hydrating serum, however, you may not need to follow up with a moisturizer, especially if you have oily skin. But for those with dry skin, it may help to double up on hydration, especially during the winter. In short, everyone’s skin is different—to help determine what can help yours, you may want to work with a professional like one of Curology’s licensed dermatology providers.
Most serums are designed to absorb into your skin, so you shouldn’t need to harshly rub them in. Also, you shouldn’t need to use a lot of product—generally, a pea-sized amount will do. If your bottle has a dropper, you can also use it to apply your serum directly on your face. In doing so, you’ll likely avoid wasting product.
Before applying your moisturizer, wait a few minutes to give your serum time to fully absorb into your skin.
There’s a wide variety of serums on the market, and what works for your skin may not work for someone else’s. Here are a few budget-friendly options we usually recommend:
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5: Made with hyaluronic acid to deliver moisture in a water-based serum. If you have dry skin, consider sealing it in with The Rich Moisturizer, which helps restore your skin barrier without clogging pores.
Clear Skin Days Clarifying Glycolic Serum: Formulated with glycolic acid and salicylic acid to exfoliate the skin and help unclog pores, and hyaluronic acid to hydrate.
The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum: This lightweight hydrating serum can be used in the morning and at night.
E.l.f. Beauty Shield Vitamin C Pollution Prevention Serum: Features vitamins C and E to visibly brighten your skin. Don’t forget to use sunscreen along with it!
Facial serums can target a plethora of different skin concerns—but if you’re not sure which ingredients will be the most effective for your skin, you may want to consult a professional. Here at Curology, our licensed dermatology providers can treat your individual skin needs. And if you have questions about how to apply your facial serum, we’re here to help.
When you sign up, you’ll complete our skin quiz, tell us your medical history, and send us a few pictures of your face. Then we’ll pair you with a licensed medical provider who will prescribe a personalized formula to help you meet your skin goals. To get started, claim your offer* today!
Some skincare ingredients, like those that dissolve in water or lipids (aka fats), may absorb more effectively when your skin is hydrated.⁷ If your serum does contain these ingredients, you may want to apply it on damp skin, since it may slide off if your face is too wet. Always follow your product's specific instructions!
Yes! In fact, applying serum straight from the dropper to your face can help to avoid wasting product.
Generally, yes. Since some moisturizers (like occlusives) create a barrier over the skin, active ingredients from a serum might not absorb well over a moisturizer. Even a lightweight option like The Moisturizer should typically go on your skin after a serum.
In general, apply your face serum after washing your face and applying toner, but before moisturizing and using sunscreen. Avoid harsh rubbing, and gently tap a pea-sized amount of product directly onto your face instead. Before you move on to your moisturizer, wait a few minutes to let the serum soak in.
You can! But if your bottle has a dropper, you may want to use it to apply the product directly onto your face. This way, you’ll be less likely to waste any serum.
Mccall-Perez, F., et al. Efficacy and Tolerability of a Facial Serum for Fine Lines, Wrinkles, and Photodamaged Skin. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (July 2011).
Garre, A., et al. Antiaging effects of a novel facial serum containing L-Ascorbic acid, proteoglycans, and proteoglycan-stimulating tripeptide: ex vivo skin explant studies and in vivo clinical studies in women. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2018, May 29).
Werschler, W.P., et al. Enhanced Efficacy of a Facial Hydrating Serum in Subjects with Normal or Self-Perceived Dry Skin. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (February 2011).
Darr, D., et al. Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. Acta Derm Venereol. (July 1996).
Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. (December 2006).
Rodan, K., et al. Efficacy of a twice-daily, 3-step, over-the-counter skincare regimen for the treatment of acne vulgaris. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2017, January 4).
Osborne, D.W., et al. Skin Penetration and Permeation Properties of Transcutol®—Neat or Diluted Mixtures. AAPS PharmSciTech. (2018, November 12).
Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.
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Erin Pate, NP-C